After four close losses, the UConn men’s basketball team didn’t mess around Wednesday night against Temple. The Huskies came out hot from the start and controlled the game for a full 40 minutes, cruising to 78-63 victory at Gampel Pavilion.
After talks of how the team was trending in the right direction but had nothing to show for it, it’s good to finally see a win on the schedule, but there is still plenty to take away from UConn’s second win of 2020.
The Next Generation
With usual starter Alterique Gilbert unavailable Wednesday night due to personal reasons, Jalen Gaffney slid into the starting lineup, joining fellow freshmen James Bouknight and Akok Akok in the starting lineup. After this trio spearheaded a valiant comeback effort in last Sunday’s overtime loss to Tulsa, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see this unit put together another solid performance.
Bouknight posted 12 points and six rebounds along with a thunderous second-half dunk. Akok put together another impressive performance with 10 points, five rebounds and four blocks, and Gaffney made the most out of his first opportunity as a starter with nine points and five assists with just two turnovers.
Perhaps most importantly, he looked confident and took good control of the ball outside of a few bad shots at the end of the shot clock. While Gaffney was the only scholarship player to not crack double digits, Hurley was impressed with his performance, saying he brought a “calming presence” to the floor according to the New Haven Register’s Dave Borges.
“That’s the job of the point guard, to be a common presence and keep everybody in order, make sure everybody’s good on the team,” Gaffney said.
This freshmen class is still a little rough around the edges - and occasionally inconsistent from night to night - but these past two games have shown not only that their improving as the season progresses, but that they have the talent to be the core of some exciting UConn teams for years to come.
Perfectly Balanced, As All Things Should Be
Even though UConn has some legitimate NBA prospects in Bouknight and Akok, they’re not quite capable yet of taking over offensively night in and night out. Because of this and the season-ending injury to Tyler Polley, Hurley has stressed that a balanced offense is necessary to win games. Wednesday night, Hurley got his wish, as six of his seven scholarship players available scored in double digits, with Gaffney falling just a point short.
Perhaps most impressively, the Huskies’ seven players combined for 78 points against a Temple defense that ranked No. 27 in defensive efficiency before tip-off. This season, UConn has shown it can score against inferior opponents without issue, but the performance against the Owls shows the Huskies have what it takes to get it done against quality teams, too.
“If we’re going to score enough points to win this year, we’ve got to have balance inside out and a lot of guys have got to pitch in because we don’t really have that one prolific guy,” Hurley said.
With Gilbert and Sidney Wilson out against Temple, the Huskies got a boost from Josh Carlton, who scored 10 points after going scoreless in his past two games. Christian Vital, who struggled mightily against Tulsa, stepped up in Gilbert’s absence, leading the team with 15 points and adding 10 rebounds, four assists, and four steals.
“If we get that that version of Christian where it’s like really good shot selection, tremendous defensively, rebounding the ball, we will have a chance to win,” Hurley said.
Even before Polley’s injury, the Huskies struggled with 3-point shooting throughout this season. Now with Polley out, things have gotten understandably worse. UConn’s shooting just 26 percent from deep in conference play, and shot 24 percent Wednesday night without Gilbert and Wilson - the team’s two best perimeter shooters in conference play.
While the Huskies will continue to need to take and make threes to stay in games, UConn needs to either have someone emerge as a consistent 3-point threat or put more emphasis on getting into the paint and the free throw line.
One option for the former is Akok, who has taken major leaps offensively in the past two games. He’s shot 3-7 from deep in the past two games and has scored double-digit points in back-to-back games for the first time at UConn. Throughout this season, Akok has always shown elite shotblocking abilities and has grown as a rebounder. If he can continue to develop his offensive game, especially from deep, he could give the Huskies the boost they need if they want to try and make a run in the American Athletic Conference tournament.